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A petition has been launched by the Central Otago Environmental Society (COES) calling for Otago regional councillors to be replaced by commissioners.

The Manuherikia River is the catalyst behind the calls to dismiss the councillors, which COES is doing in the form of a petition to Environment Minister David Parker.

Concerns have been raised from within the Otago Regional Council (ORC) itself in a letter to the minister.

That letter was signed by councillor and former ORC chairwoman Marion Hobbs and Crs Bryan Scott, Alexa Forbes and Gretchen Robertson. The letter raises concerns amid allegations of conflicts of interest, predetermination and unnecessary delays in noting minimum flows for the Manuherikia River.

Cr Hobbs signed both the letter and the petition.

Both moves follow a decision by a slim majority of councillors to delay implementation of a minimum flow for the river as recommended to them by council staff at an online meeting last week.

At the meeting staff tabled a report stating preferred flows for the main stem of the river of 1200 litres/sec by 2023, 1500 litres/sec by 2030 and 2000 litres/sec by 2037 and asked councillors to note the figures to be included in the proposed land and water regional plan, which will be notified in 2023.

On Tuesday, the COES petition had attracted more than 700 signatures from a goal of 1000.

COES chairman Phil Murray said despite several councillors arguing for the urgent need to restore the river, in a motion introduced by ORC chairman Cr Andrew Noone and Cr Hilary Calvert, it was agreed to postpone any decision.

They used the request for further science as a basis for inaction, despite detailed and well-researched recommendations from a technical advisory group, Mr Murray said.

“We have reached the end of our patience.

“The public knows that we do not have the luxury of delay when it comes to urgent environmental issues. We [COES] are calling on Minister Parker to ensure that his policies are able to be implemented,” Mr Murray said.

Many people were frustrated with the failure of the ORC to take even small steps to reverse the degradation and over-allocation of the severely stressed river, he said.

“Over the past three years, COES and partner groups such as Ngai Tahu, Forest & Bird and Fish & Game have worked tirelessly with the ORC to map a path to the future restoration of the river.

“We have now lost faith in the will of the council to implement change and are calling on the Minister for the Environment to intervene in order to implement a framework for this to happen under the National Policy Statement on Freshwater Management (2020).”

Meanwhile, Waitaki MP Jacqui Dean said she believed the decision to undertake more scientific work before setting a flow level for the river was the right one.

“We need to ensure that the right balance is struck between protecting the environment and respecting the interests of landowners who need water.

“The implications of decisions around flow levels are huge and that’s why science has to take a front seat. I would much prefer this process to take a little longer and for it to be done right.”